A Modern Ox-Bow Incident

Citizens in the novel The Ox-Bow Incident, set in Nevada in 1885, are upset by rustling taking place in their area, and a suspected murder.  Published in 1940 and written by Walter van Tilburg Clark, the novel is a psychological study of mob rule.  Major Tetley easily manipulates the resentment and fear of the townspeople and uses that to lead them into lawlessness. The result is that three innocent men are falsely accused of murder and theft. The mob hangs them and as Wallace Stegner observers, civilization was trampled by the mob.

In August 2020, Kyle Rittenhouse was 17 when he travelled to Kenosha, Wisconsin to patrol its streets following the civil unrest after a white policeman shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back. Blake is Black and rioting and looting had taken place in protest. During his night of “patrol” Rittenhouse fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and injured Gaige Grosskreutz with his AR-15 styled rifle. A friend had illegally purchased the rifle for Rittenhouse, and despite not being old enough to openly carry a gun in Kenosha, Rittenhouse took it upon himself to patrol the southeast Wisconsin town.

The jury selection for his trial begins tomorrow, and the presiding judge, Bruce Schroeder, has ruled in pre-trial deliberations that the prosecutor may not refer to the three men shot by Rittenhouse as “victims”, but the defense may, if it presents supporting evidence, present that the three were “rioters, looters, and arsonists.” 

Much has been written and discussed about that ruling by Judge Schroeder and how he states that “victim” or even “intended victim” are loaded and may perjure  the jury, but that, in his mind,  “rioters, looters, and arsonists” are not. Thus, the field for this trial is made uneven in the pre-trial stage.

However, as far as I have been able to determine, Judge Schroeder has not ruled against the district attorney using “vigilante” to describe Rittenhouse. I suggest that he use that word because it is  a perfect description of Rittenhouse and his actions. Just as the individual mob members in Clark’s 1885 Nevada novel, Rittenhouse self-appointed himself as the agent for  “law and order” and travelled from his hometown of Antioch, Illinois to Kenosha, Wisconsin, about fifteen miles away.  The 17-year-old killed two men and severely wounded another while declaring that he, the one with the AR-15 rifle, was acting in self-defense.

 The Ox-Bow Incident examines what happens to a civilization when mob rule becomes the norm. With his actions, young Rittenhouse in Kenosha not only killed and maimed fellow citizens,  but he also took something from us all. He altered our civilization by his choice to be the self-proclaimed law in what he saw as a  lawless night, but he also altered his own life forever. Seventeen is a terribly young age to have committed such an act, an act that will have consequences no matter the verdict beyond the dishonest courtroom of Judge Schroeder.

Judge Schroeder correctly, I think, understands the power of words. But he should allow the word “victims” to be used during the trial because that is what all of us are.

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